Prosecutor's goof costs inmate 5 more years in prison

Tuesday , October 10, 2017 - 12:00 AM1 comment

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Gordon Leon Walls of Ogden went to prison for a 2001 murder with a plea-bargain promise prosecutors would recommend incarceration of no more than 10 to 12 years.

But the state Board of Pardons and Parole never got that recommendation. So Walls still sits in the Utah State Prison, about five years longer than anyone apparently intended.

RELATED: Ogden man denied parole after kicking, killing mother's boyfriend in 2001

Walls, 43, acknowledged in two parole hearings that he’s not a very sympathetic figure — he was an extremely hard drinker who kicked to death a man who was beating his mother. Plus, his ex-wife says she hopes he stays in prison.

But since learning of the unfulfilled plea bargain only last year, when he first came up for a parole hearing after 13 years at the Draper prison, Walls has been fighting back in court.

In his July 2016 parole hearing — the first time he had been granted a hearing since his imprisonment in 2003 — there was no evidence of that prosecutor’s recommendation in his file. And the board wasn’t very impressed with his progress and said he would not get another hearing until 2020.

So he then filed what the court system calls a “petition for post-conviction relief.” What happened to that plea bargain promise, he asked.

With a nearly year-long series of handwritten court documents, Walls has been able to push the 2nd District Court, the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the Weber County Attorney’s Office to see that the prosecutor’s promise is fulfilled.

As a result of his legal action, the parole board called a special hearing for him last month. He got a new parole date — January 2018 — and an official apology of sorts.

WEBER COUNTY PROSECUTOR NEVER MAILED LETTER

Walls has been in jail and prison since his arrest in June 2001. When he was sentenced in 2003, the judge gave him credit for time already served.

The Weber County Attorney’s Office apparently never mailed the recommendation letter, board member Chyleen A. Arbon told Walls at his second parole hearing last month.

“They thought they mailed it many years ago and we did not receive it,” she said, noting prosecutors in 2003 recommended Walls serve “no more than 10 to 12 years” on his sentence of 5 years to life.

“They did do that; we just didn’t receive it,” Arbon continued to explain to Walls. “They did send it now. It’s been 16 years. I’m sure that you are more than frustrated. We have it now and we are looking at it.”

Under Utah’s system, the parole board has discretion to decide prison term length, within the bounds of the sentence handed down by the judge, plus recommendations from prosecutors and others.

In documents filed for Walls’ petition, state attorneys said the Weber office wrote to the board in March of this year, “explaining the prosecutor’s oversight” and urging the board to give Walls a new parole hearing.

It’s not clear what happened to the 2003 letter. Both the prosecutor and public defender who handled Walls’ murder case are dead, the judge who sentenced him is retired, and the county attorney at the time, Mark DeCaria, is now a district judge on the Ogden bench.

Efforts to reach the current county attorney, Chris Allred, were not immediately successful.

SIX-PACK A DAY

At Walls’ latest hearing, Arbon asked him to detail his struggles with alcohol.

He said it was not unusual for him to drink a six-pack of 18-ounce beers a day during his young adult years.

“I was young and dumb,” he said.

Those years included his marriage to the former Debbie Garcia, which crumbled in 1995.

“I couldn’t hold it together when my wife left me,” he told Arbon.

Arbon asked if their marital problems included physical abuse.

“She’ll tell you, yeah, but I never abused her,” Walls said.

Court records show Walls had 13 misdemeanor convictions for intoxication, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct — all before the murder charge. 

Garcia, in a phone interview, said she and Walls argued about drugs on their wedding day. They both often consumed alcohol, but Garcia said Walls sometimes lost control when he was drunk.

One night she was reading a book and Walls asked her to come to bed, Garcia recalled. She wanted to keep reading.

“He pulled my hair … and pushed me and pinned me in the tub,” she said.

“He was actually a good person when he was sober,” she said.

But her memories of their problems prompted her to speak out recently against the possibility of Walls being paroled. She said she planned to contact the parole board to say, “Don’t let him out if he can’t stay away from alcohol. Find somebody else to let out who is ready and willing to be better.”

Because of Walls’ subsequent murder conviction, Garcia said she’s more afraid of him now.

On June 11, 2001, he kicked Craig Tillet, 53, twice in the head to conclude a brawl in his mother’s Ogden apartment.

In his 2016 hearing, Walls said he and Tillet were drinking beer and whiskey when Tillet and Walls’ mother began shouting at one another. Tillet was out on bail, having been charged with domestic violence against Walls’ mother. The three were sharing the tiny apartment.

He said Tillet prepared to swing at his mother and he tried to stop him. Walls said he tried to leave the apartment and Tillet hit him on the back of the head with an ashtray. In the brawl, Tillet ended up on the ground, where he suffered the fatal kicks.

“I’m really sorry that it happened,” Walls said in last month’s parole hearing. “I never meant to hurt him like that.”

GANGS, MAX AND A SHANK

Had the parole board received the Weber prosecutors’ letter, Walls might have been granted an initial parole hearing by 2013 or earlier. But by then, he had run into some trouble in prison.

In 2011, he was written up for making alcohol. In 2013, he had problems with a cellmate and was moved to maximum security. He said it was to protect him from reprisals by gangs.

“My celly was threatening to stab me for like two months,” he said.

Guards wrote him up for punching the cellmate.

“I didn’t want to wait until he got a shank,” he told Arbon. “I used to fight only in self defense.”

“You can get into self defense and kill someone,” Arbon responded.

On parole, Walls will have to be determined, she said.

“I think we’ve identified that you’ve got some concerning history, with alcohol and behavior, and you have done enough things that make you a public safety risk,” she said.

Walls needs to pursue a halfway house, parole counseling and substance abuse treatment, she said.

“Just staying sober is not going to be enough. Those things are somehow boiling under the surface. The alcohol allows it to come out.”

“Yes, I react badly when I drink,” he said. “I guess it will always be a struggle. I don’t usually do bad stuff sober.”

Walls said he’s avoided alcohol in prison since the trouble six years ago.

“A lot of people in here are brewing alcohol,” he said. “It’s hard to stay sober. People get high all the time.”

On the outside, he said, “I’ll just stay sober. I don’t think I’ll be a threat to anybody.”

Asked what he will do on parole, Walls said he would get a job and “go fishing, jogging. What sober people do.”

His petition for post-conviction relief remains pending in Ogden before 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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